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Originally published Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 9:03 PM

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Sip, spit: Underage wine students can now taste subject

A new law will allow 18- to 20-year-olds to taste wine if they’re enrolled in a community college wine program — just as long as they sip, then spit.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Before now, Reggie Daigneault’s college courses were off-limits to traditional college-age students, no matter how much they — or in some cases, their parents — begged for them to be admitted.

That’s because Daigneault is a wine instructor whose students must sample as many as 100 different wines during a 12-week course at South Seattle Community College’s Northwest Wine Academy. And only students age 21 and older could participate.

That will change this summer, when Washington becomes one of a handful of states allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to taste wine while they are enrolled in a community- or technical-college program teaching viticulture, enology or culinary arts.

The catch: Students are allowed to taste, but not consume, alcohol. Or, as it’s known in the industry, to sip and spit.

“It’s in our syllabi — all our students must spit,” Daigneault said.

With more than 700 wineries in Washington state, three community colleges — Walla Walla, Yakima Valley and South Seattle — have programs to teach various aspects of viticulture (cultivating wine grapes) and enology (the study of winemaking). The bill, SB 5774, was an easy sell to the Legislature; Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law last month after it passed the House and Senate by large margins.

Without the legislation, students who enroll in community college right after high school are finishing up their programs — and out of financial aid — before they’re old enough to legally raise a wineglass to their lips. “They’re already gone, and we’ve missed that opportunity,” Daigneault said.

“It’s a competitiveness issue, a jobs issue,” said state Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake. “There’s a need for educated workers to go into this.”

Holmquist Newbry helped sponsor the bill, but she also has a vested interest: Her husband is a student at Walla Walla, and the two hope to start a family winery after he’s finished.

One day, their young son might want to study wine in college, she said.

It’s OK in Oregon

In Walla Walla, home to a decade-old wine program with a national reputation, the prohibition on minors tasting wine “was a real barrier, particularly for farm families,” said Myles Anderson, director of the program of enology and viticulture at Walla Walla Community College.

Students whose families owned farms wanted to enroll in the program so they could bring the knowledge back home to the farm, but “by the time they were 21, they decided to do other things,” Anderson said. He counts six students, all of them minors, who hope to join the enology and viticulture program this fall.

Daigneault, from South Seattle Community College, hears from about a dozen students every quarter who’d like to take her classes. One student’s mother even called Daigneault, saying she had no problem with her 19-year-old tasting wine.

“I said, well, that’s great, but it’s against the law,” Daigneault said.

With this legislation, Washington catches up to neighboring Oregon, which already allows its 18- to 20-year-olds to take wine courses.

Other states that allow minors to sample wine include Colorado and New York — but not California.

The bill doesn’t extend to four-year schools — both Washington State University and Central Washington University offer courses in viticulture and enology — but Holmquist Newbry said the Legislature is likely to extend the law to include those schools during next year’s session.

Culinary students, too

The prohibition against wine-tasting doesn’t just affect students who want to make wine. South Seattle’s growing, and very popular, culinary arts courses include a wine-pairing course to help students learn how to select the right wines to go with different foods.

“A lot of our culinary students are doing internships abroad,” Daigneault said. “They’ll go to France, to a five-star establishment, and they know nothing about wine. And the expectation in Europe is, wine is another food component on the table.”

The legal drinking age in France is 18, and at home, European families have a relaxed attitude about teens sampling wine, she said.

Sipping and spitting does mean that a student will absorb some alcohol on the palate, but Daigneault said she has her students eat crackers and drink water after every taste, which also helps cleanse and prepare the palate for the next glass. Most of the alcohol dissipates within 15 to 20 minutes, she said.

In Walla Walla, the college’s enology and viticulture program requires students to try as many as 600 wines a year — 200 each quarter — from all over the world, Anderson said.

Tasting 600 wines may sound like pure joy to a wine lover, but Walla Walla’s wine experts “dope” some of the wine with bad-tasting substances. That helps students recognize what went wrong when a wine fails to live up to its potential, or when it has turned bad.

“We have some painful wines,” Anderson said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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